Linde Ivimey is the most conspicuous beneficiary of the Gothic turn that Australian contemporary art has taken over the past few years. A decade ago she was virtually unknown, making a living by sculpting cakes while pursuing sculpture in her spare time. Nowadays her pieces are eagerly sought after by private collectors and public galleries.
The attraction of this work does not lie in its decorative qualities. Ivimey makes small, monstrous figures out of cloth, animal bones, hair, wood, and various other materials, such as household dust and lint. She draws inspiration from the fetish objects created by tribal cultures, and from the lives of the saints, as related by the early Christian chronicles. Like those anonymous tribal artists she invests her work with totemic significance, but she is not trying to summon rain or ward off the evil eye – every piece is related, in more-or-less oblique fashion, to her own life.
Ivimey’s work is the subject of a survey show at the University of Queensland Art Museum, called If Pain Persists, which will travel on to Cairns, but not to Sydney. This is a shame because she is making sculpture that deserves the widest possible audience. Rather than following fashions she has carved a niche for herself, and watched as tastes and trends started to move in her direction. There is something primal in these small sculptures – a raw quality that makes viewers stand and stare, while experiencing feelings of fascination and horror.
In a new monograph published to coincide with this exhibition, Louise Martin-Chew discusses the biographical roots of Ivimey’s sculpture. It’s hardly surprising to learn that she didn’t have a happy childhood. However, a dysfunctional family, running away from home, drug abuse and illness, was combined with the most rigorous program of self-education. It wasn’t that Ivimey overcame her past and started a new life. On the contrary, she burrowed down deeply into this well of unhappiness, finding a creative outlet for all the negative energy.
Ivimey came of age as an artist during her relationship with sculptor, Bruce Armstrong, whom she married in 1998. A chapter of the monograph is called Bunny and Owl, which were the couple’s nicknames for each other. This also explains some of Ivimey’s iconography, with many rabbit-eared mannequins being disguised self-portraits. In Night Owl (2009), a kneeling, owl-headed creature throws its arms in the air, having just discarded a rabbit mask. It’s a powerful response to her separation from Armstrong, as the owl discards the rabbit part of its identity. Two are no longer one.
Martin-Chew doesn’t explore the interesting question of what these two strong personalities took from each other, but certain sensitivities must be respected. My best guess would be that Armstrong showed Ivimey what it took to make it at the highest level. She quickly got the hang of it and never looked back.
The catalyst was a show held at Heide Park in 2003, when she had hardly any profile in Melbourne. The invitation came about when curator, Kelly Gellatly, saw Ivimey’s sculptures while visiting Armstrong’s studio, in preparation for a 1999 survey of his work.
The Heide exhibition had an explosive impact on Ivimey’s career. As Armstrong put it, she seemed like an artist who had appeared on the scene, “fully formed”. I saw that show and can endorse that description. Ivimey’s grotesque figurines were the work of a mature, dedicated sculptor, not a relative newcomer. They had a distinct personality, and no obvious precedents in Australian art.
Ten years later, those impressions have only grown stronger. The show at the UQAM is breathtaking in its inventiveness, and the persistent sense that there is more to these works than meets the eye. Although comparisons are said to be odious, it’s tempting to compare these pieces with the equally theatrical sculptures of an artist such as Patricia Piccinini, who has enjoyed tremendous institutional success, including a survey at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and the honour of representing Australia in the Venice Biennale.
Whereas Piccinini’s silicone mutants are made by skilled technicians to her specifications, Ivimey does everything by hand. Where Piccinini carries a whole list of readymade, science fiction themes, such as genetic engineering, the ethical limits of science, and so on, Ivimey’s figures remain dark and ambiguous. It’s the difference between work that is calculated to have a particular effect, and something that comes from the deepest reaches of the artist’s psyche. While Piccinini invites a kind of intellectual recognition, Ivimey taps into our underlying fears and anxieties. In this, she might be grouped with painters such as Peter Booth or Louise Hearman, who take much of their imagery from dreams and the subconscious.
The word ‘Gothic’ springs easily to mind, but it is notoriously hard to pin down. In a book on the subject in the Whitechapel Documents of Contemporary Art series, editor, Gilda Williams, writes: “’Gothic’ is a borrowed term in contemporary art, applied liberally to artworks centring on death, deviance, the erotic macabre, psychologically charged sites, disembodied voices, and fragmented bodies.”
This definition reads like a list of examples drawn from the work of various artists. It would be better to say the Gothic refers to something that seems supernatural or otherworldly, but has deep roots within our subconscious. It conjures up the fear of losing control, of the dissolution of the Self. It is the path of forbidden or unacknowledged desire; of madness, lust and death. It is antithesis of the tidy truths we associate with a classical or formalist view of art. Instead of the perfectly proportioned body, we have the body in pieces. In place of beauty, there is fascinating ugliness.
Ivimey’s work ticks all the boxes. She borrows the names of obscure saints or scenes from the Bible as a way of making her imagery more generally comprehensible. She says that her sculptures only became “accepted and understandable when [she] would relate the works to ancient relics, saints’ stories and fertility figures.” The myths and stories provided a public face for an intimate body of work that resisted precise explanation.
Pieces such as Lucian or Segni I (both 2007) show a hooded saint with a skeletal creature fastened to his back. It is an image that might be taken from a fairy tale, but it is also a potent symbol of mental distress – the monkey on one’s back that won’t permit a moment’s rest. The many figurines that carry babies may be seen as images of fertility, but they also reflect the artist’s distress at her failure to have a child. It’s no exaggeration that the sculptures have become her children, invested with a deeply personal significance.
Thumper (Self-portrait) (2009) features a rabbit-eared figure in Ivimey’s distinctive mesh covering made from bones taken from chicken necks. It holds a butterfly, which is conventionally interpreted as a symbol of the Resurrection, and by extension, of personal rehabilitation.
The major works in this show, such as The Four Horsemen (2006), or Twelve Apostles (2006-7), might be shown with distinction in any museum. In the former, the fearsome horsemen of the Apocalypse are shown standing around with toy-sized horses, which they caress and play with. These faceless figures, covered in tight-fitting bone mesh, are like children playing a game. It is a completely original conception, disconcerting because it takes the mythical destroyers portrayed by Dürer and other old masters, and shows them in a contrary light. If they are bringers of death and disaster they appear to have no comprehension of the significance of their role. They are as innocent as automatons, symbols of blind natural forces.
In Twelve Apostles, the procession of figures encased in baggy, shapeless sackcloth is an instance of ‘the blind leading the blind’, and a kind of chain gang. Although each Apostle is identifiable by the objects he carries, their faith is a burden to them, a groping in the dark. These figures are so unlike the conventional image of the Apostles that they seem to symbolise doubt rather than belief, like Holbein’s painting of the Entombed Christ in the Basel Kunstmuseum that the novelist, Dostoevsky, saw as a radical challenge to his faith.
Artists dream of making works that force viewers to question their convictions and self-perceptions, but very few succeed in this aim. It’s especially difficult to find an image that bypasses the barriers of indifference and rationality and strikes the target. With the best of Ivimey’s voodoo dollies, her fetishes and figurines, we feel that something is speaking to us from the darkness, and speaking directly to the heart.
Linde Ivimey, If Pain Persists:
University of Queensland Art Museum, November 3, 2012 – March 24, 2013
Cairns Regional Gallery, April 26 – June 28, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, February 16, 2013